Even though I live in North Carolina and would have been in no position, financially speaking, to shell out the $300 that scalpers were asking for tickets to the Weeknd’s first show, a gig at Toronto’s Mod Club that sold out in 90 minutes, I still got to be a part of the R&B singer’s concert debut. It hadn’t been 24 hours since Abel Tesfaye wrapped up his encore before his entire set was already up on YouTube. In a brilliant bit of reverse psychology, the show’s promoters told fans that recording was forbidden while making no attempt to confiscate cameras and phones, thereby guaranteeing that every fan would scramble to shoot and share their “exclusive” footage. Not only was “High for This” online, one dedicated fan had taken the time to edit some dozen recordings into a makeshift master, plucking the highest quality sound file from one video and setting it to a concert-doc-style montage of perspectives. I’ll admit I had one of those “gawd the Internet is cool” moments: I had just turned off an especially unsatisfying episode of MTV’s Unplugged, and now I had the opportunity to watch an artist I like perform music I wanted to hear.
Right now a lot of people want to hear the Weeknd’s music, and once they hear it, they want to talk about it. When the review aggregator Metacritic gave its mid-year report last month, the Weeknd’s first mixtape, House of Balloons, topped its list of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums. The Weeknd, along with alt-R&B fellow traveler Frank Ocean, has generated countless think pieces everywhere from Pitchfork to the Washington Post. And now that Drake has thrown himself in the Weeknd’s corner, it seems like there’s no limit on how far Tesfaye can go. There’s no question that he could have jumped on a major label at any point in the last three months, but at this point I know of literally no way you can pay for the Weeknd’s music. Tesfaye has stuck with his plan to release a trilogy of free mixtapes, the second of which, Thursday, went viral last weekend.
It’s easy to see Thursday as the archetypal “difficult follow-up to acclaimed debut” since it picks up many of the most experimental aspects of House of Balloons‘s art-damaged R&B and runs with them. From the perspective of a music critic, that’s a perfectly respectable move, though in the Weeknd’s case, it feels genuinely risky. When House of Balloons and Ocean’s nostalgia, ultra first dropped, a lot of discussion revolved around what to make of this new territory, which staked a claim somewhere between indie-electronica and radio R&B. There was one camp that immediately dismissed the trend as hipster music, and their arguments covered a lot of the points that skeptics used to make about rap groups like the Roots or some of the Stones Throw roster: you won’t hear this on urban radio; black people don’t actually listen to this; this isn’t real R&B; and so on. But where I’ve had difficulty selling some of my indie-inclined friends on the Weeknd, I know a number of folks, black and white alike, who listen predominantly to R&B and who immediately took to House of Balloons, which, for all of its critic-baiting references, owed its biggest debts to Prince, R. Kelly, Timbaland, and The-Dream. You could give the album to a Trey Songz or Drake fan and expect that they’d find something familiar in it.
I think R&B fans will be more likely to greet Thursday as the work of an outsider. More than on House of Balloons, the production is even more indebted to mid-‘90s trip-hop, the songs are longer and more abstract, hooks and big choruses are less frequent. Tesfaye is still an R&B singer: His fluttery falsetto runs and distinctly urban vocabulary are the most obvious cues that you’re listening to a black singer who’s largely influenced by other black singers. But aside from “Gone,” which sounds like a minimalist variant on a Timbaland track, Thursday spans a range of sounds that are darker and more abrasive than what R&B typically allows (Meshell Ngedeocello’s Devil’s Halo is the only R&B album I know that works so capably with the textures of experimental rock and electronica). “Life of the Party,” with its peals of distorted guitar and unnerving sing-song refrain, sounds like nothing so much as Nine Inch Nails circa The Downward Spiral. Meanwhile, “Lonely Star” recalls the Massive Attack of Mezzanine and “The Birds Pt. 2” samples a song by frequent Massive Attack collaborator Martina Topley-Bird.
Thursday, then, is a groove-oriented grower of a record, but my sense is that this is a product of intention and not exhaustion. Tesfaye’s lyrics are darker and more personal than on House of Balloons; if we’ve reached less friendly sonic landscapes, it’s because we’ve been made to witness more frightening parts of the Weeknd’s world, where every relationship (with women, with money, with drugs) is characterized by dependency, compulsion, and abuse. Lyrics don’t get much more harrowing than the part of “The Birds Pt. 2” where Tesfaye says, “She said please/Mercy me, mercy me/Let me fall out of love before you fuck her/She thanked me/She gave me all her pills.” Overall, you’re more likely to find Tesfaye singing in first person on Thursday than on House of Balloons: Where the latter served as a kind of exposé on a dark and debauched scene, Thursday feels more like a character study set in the world it established. If the songs here take a few listens to connect to, the engrossing drama of the lyrics and beats give plenty of reason for repeat listens.
“Rolling Stone,” for example, is a haunting, acoustic guitar-driven number that finds Tesfaye detailing a possessive relationship that seems to be between him and a girl, but could also be about his fans. “Baby I got you,” he coos, “Until you’re used to my face/And my mystery fades…So baby love me/Before they all love me/Before you won’t love me.” Lyrics like that make the listener feel complicit in Tesfaye’s exploitative, drug-fueled relationships because they highlight the similarity between the way his character moves through women and the way music fans commodify and consume in pursuit of the fleeting highs afforded by novelty and exclusivity. There’s a similarly unsettling moment when Drake shows up for his guest verse on “The Zone,” not quite stepping out of his nice-guy persona so much as showing how it can mask appetites that are just as predatory as Tesfaye’s. Drake instructs a pole dancer to sit down, wipe off her makeup, be herself—certainly kinder come-ons than we’d hear from Tesfaye, but isn’t the end goal still to get a vulnerable woman in bed, whether she’s given a false sense of security by a pill or just a smooth-talking MC?
Moments like those are where Thursday proves itself a worthy predecessor to House of Balloons, showing that Tesfaye’s has a vision for his project and the confidence to execute at his own pace. With its K-hole production and skin-crawling lyrics, Thursday makes it clear to fans hooked by the seedy allure of House of Balloons just how deep they’ve gotten in. What felt vicarious and anonymous is hitting uncomfortably close to home. I suspect things won’t resolve happily when the story is completed on the forthcoming Echoes of Silence, but at this point I’m less interested in making predictions than in enjoying the ride. The Weeknd is in full command of his craft, and at this point it’s almost impossible for me to imagine that he won’t deliver on the finale. He’s earned my trust, as would any other artist who had already released two of the year’s best albums.